Column: Rob Portman’s Liberal Critics Are Wrong
Hypocrite. Narcissist. Wingnut. Bigot. Those are some of the epithets — not counting the expletives — that have been hurled at Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, since he announced Friday that he now supports same-sex marriage because his son is gay. But these epithets aren’t coming from the right. They’re coming from the left.
According to liberal columnists and bloggers, Portman’s conversion — the first on this issue by any Republican senator — is too little, too late and short on “empathy.” But it isn’t Portman who’s having an empathy problem. It’s his critics. They don’t really understand Portman, conservatives, empathy or how people change.
Portman’s detractors claim he “didn’t take a stand for ... other people’s children” and showed “absolutely no genuine empathy ... for the other approximately 11,699,999 LGBT in the United States.” That isn’t true. In an op-ed explaining his conversion, Portman wrote that “all of our sons and daughters ought to have the same opportunity to experience the joy and stability of marriage.” He said Congress should repeal the part of the Defense of Marriage Act that denies federal marriage benefits, such as joint tax filing, to legally married same-sex couples.
To cast Portman as a hypocrite, his critics point out that he voted to prohibit adoptions by gay couples in the District of Columbia and to amend the Constitution to ban same-sex marriage. What they don’t mention is that these votes took place 14 and nine years ago, respectively. In the evolution of this issue, that’s an eternity. Until 10 months ago, no major presidential candidate in either party had endorsed gay marriage.
The critics claim that in an interview last year, Portman — knowing at that point that his son was gay — opposed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and was “endorsing discriminatory policies.” That isn’t true, either. The transcript shows he ducked the question, changed the subject, and concluded that while “no one should discriminate,” we “have to be careful” how we write such bills. In the video, you can see how uncomfortable he is. Around the same time, a lesbian met with Portman’s staff about a job discrimination complaint and came away hopeful that he’d support the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. She doesn’t really know what he’d do. Neither do we.
Portman says his longtime opposition to same-sex marriage “was rooted in my faith tradition.” His critics, apparently baffled by religion, ignore this explanation. Instead, they depict his position as an emotional void, concluding that he “did not care about any of the country’s gay people.”
This insensitivity, in the eyes of Portman’s hecklers, explains conservative positions generally. What defines conservatism, they argue, is a “total absence of empathy,” a “fundamental lack of compassion,” and “an inability to give any weight to the perspective of the disadvantaged.” As Slate’s Matthew Yglesias puts it: “Rob Portman doesn’t have a son with a pre-existing medical condition who’s locked out of the health insurance market. Rob Portman doesn’t have a son engaged in peasant agriculture whose livelihood is likely to be wiped out by climate change. Rob Portman doesn’t have a son who’ll be malnourished if SNAP benefits are cut. So Rob Portman doesn’t care.” The possibility that anyone might limit the food-stamp budget or the government’s role in health care for reasons other than indifference — say, a belief in markets or in fiscal self-restraint — goes unmentioned.
The bigger this empathy critique gets — the more it reaches beyond Portman and his son toward a grand theory of the GOP — the less it’s about empathy. At its core, empathy is one person’s feeling for another. That’s what gets lost in the political indictments. “Why must empathy among conservatives be tied so directly to their own personal interactions?” asks one writer. Another objects that Portman “was only able to realize the error of his ways when his own flesh and blood bravely stood up and said ‘Hey, you’re talking about me too.’ That’s what it took. None of the studies, the rallies, the protests, the legal victories, the testimonials, the documentaries, articles, books, plays, movies, television shows or anything could sway him. ... To me that indicates that there’s a pretty thick wall separating his political convictions from the rest of the world.”
Really? To me it just confirms that flesh-and-blood relationships are more powerful than studies or documentaries. That isn’t a conservative defect. It’s human psychology. In academic circles, it’s called contact theory. It’s how President Obama explained his conversion on gay marriage last May: “Over the course of several years, as I talk to friends and family and neighbors, when I think about members of my own staff who are incredibly committed in monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together ... .” Where were all these critics then?
Rob Portman’s journey, and ours, will take time. Be patient. Be welcoming. Be kind.
William Saletan covers science, technology and politics for Slate.